Tag Archives: New Zealand gardens

The New Zealand Garden – is there such a thing?

The D.I.Y. Lutyens-style sunken garden

The D.I.Y. Lutyens-style sunken garden

We have been talking about the New Zealand garden. This conversation has been given new impetus by the lack of any analysis of the nature of the New Zealand garden in the lavish new book on the topic by Kristin Lammerting, which is essentially a parade of gardens that she liked, including her own, (or maybe gardens that had been recommended to her) written up in glowing terms with fabulous photographs but zilch insight into the context. We will probably continue discussing this until we die, it being a topic of never-ending interest because it is a reflection of who we are in this long, thin country of the southerly latitudes. In the main, we are a nation of gardeners. Most residential properties and indeed commercial businesses make some attempt, however meagre, to beautify their frontages. Some do better than others but there is a shared value in beautifying our immediate environment.

So I offer up the following thoughts on defining our place in the world of international gardening, with the rider that this is by no means a definitive list.

· Size. We do big gardens here. Even our small, urban gardens are actually quite large by international standards. Our traditional quarter acre section is huge as an allocation of space for an individual family. Our major private gardens are usually several acres. Space is not a luxury confined to the wealthy in this country. It is perfectly realistic for the average home gardener to own a substantial patch of dirt.

· Despite our inclination towards large gardens, we usually do all our own gardening. Hired help is not common. Skilled and qualified hired help is positively rare. Overseas visitors are frequently astounded at how much New Zealanders routinely achieve in large gardens without assistance.

· It must be something in our egalitarian heritage which has many New Zealanders taking the ideas of the large, historic gardens – especially in Britain though sometimes from wider Europe – and attempting to re-create something similar here. We seem to be oblivious to the fact that the vast majority of the great gardens of Europe and Britain were established and maintained by the wealthy and the powerful who could afford to pay gardeners to actually do the work. So we go for high maintenance gardening styles (clipped hedges, a touch of topiary, sweeping lawns, mixed borders, buxus enclosures around statuary) – all the trappings of the gentry and the nobility which our forbears were so keen to leave behind.

· Grand designs, maybe, but on a very low budget so the D.I.Y. ethos rules supreme. In many circles, getting somebody else to design your garden for you or others to maintain it is somewhat frowned upon – a sign that you are not a true gardener. If you have wealth, you shouldn’t be flaunting it. Because very few of our gardens have a lot of money behind them, we tend to be very light on permanent structures and surfaces. It is a bit like our attitude to housing. We would not expect our wooden bungalows to be around in 300 years and the same goes for our gardens. So we don’t use a lot of stone or brickwork, leaning more to the rather short term pongas, timber (sometimes tanalised) and the utility concrete block or paver. We tend to favour grass over cobbled surfaces, keeping sealed areas for driveways and a path immediately around the house.

· What we lack in hard landscaping, we make up for in plants. Plants are cheap in this country, ridiculously cheap by international standards. Our equable climate means they grow quickly and gardening is pretty easy. We love a wide range of them, especially something new or different. We love them even more if we can multiply them ourselves and get some for nothing. So we use plants for structure, as well as soft furnishings – plants are often used instead of walls, fences and edgings. This passion for plants is quite possibly part of the British settler heritage. Most of the world’s great plant hunters (including Joseph Banks) hailed from there and even today, a curiosity for plants and a desire to stretch the boundaries of what one can grow is a characteristic of gardeners in that country. It is just easier here – we have better soils, a more obliging climate and cheaper plants.

· We did not, however, inherit a love for big trees. No danger of us taking up the champion trees scheme (where the largest specimens are identified, measured, monitored and even revered). We are more likely to chainsaw them down. Maybe it is a gut response to the somewhat intimidating nature of our native forests. I think it more likely that our houses are often cold in winter and our climate is not quite as hot as we would like so we just don’t want shade. Landscape views are common but highly prized, certainly above trees. We garden more with shrubs than trees.

· The frequent lack of a strong design element defined by permanent structure, a heavy dependence on plants for form and a dislike of big trees, all allied to a mobile population who move house frequently, means that our gardens tend to be quite ephemeral. They grow quickly. It only takes 10 years to create a very pretty tree and shrub garden here. Many gardeners regard trees of 15 to 20 years of age as mature. Never go back is the mantra of gardeners who have moved house. Odds on, the new owners will have ripped out your garden and replaced it. We don’t expect our gardens to survive past us, and very few do.

· Native plants. All our native plants in this country are evergreen and some are strongly sculptural (the cabbage tree, pohutukawa, nikau, tree ferns, even the pachystegia and tussocks). We have a huge array of indigenous flora which we generally take for granted but the integration of many of these plants into the ornamental garden is another defining feature.

· In our easy climate, most of the country gardens all year round. We don’t put our gardens to bed for winter while we retire indoors. We have flowers and foliage all the time so we don’t need to depend on hard landscaping to give winter form.

· Our reverence for immaculate lawns and the priority placed on kerb appeal are values taken more from American suburbia than Europe.

We are still magpies here – we borrow ideas from here and from there and try them out. Our settler history is still very recent. When we moved in to Mark’s parents’ house, we found the books which they used to give them ideas when planning the garden that we now own and the end result was a typically large country garden strongly modelled on the English landscape traditions, right down to the D.I.Y. Lutyens-style sunken garden pond. In the sixty years since, the form remains English but the range of plants and the way we use them are very different. It is likely that the sheer lushness of plant growth in this country will continue to define our gardening style far more than any slavish copying or reinterpretation of overseas genres.

Decoding the jargon

Setting the standard for garden rooms – Sissinghurst

A newsletter from a gardening organisation arrived a few days before Christmas and I duly read it, coming across the following statement (warning: do not let your eyes glaze and brain disconnect before the end). “Outstanding gardens manage to respond to the genius loci using borrowed landscape, natural landform and native plants – often mixed with exotics – to create stunning indigenous compositions of form, line, texture and colour.”

Borrowing the jargon, shall we unpack that statement? Though I prefer to use the term decode because it is somewhat like a secret code.

Outstanding gardens manage to – that bit is fine.

respond to the genius loci – had to get out the dictionary for this. Loci is, more or less, a place or locality. Google then helped me track down the term genius loci which apparently dates back to early Roman times and means the protective spirit of a place. Latterly the term seems to have been adopted by the landscape architecture fraternity although it might be easier to understand if they simply referred to the well known words of English poet and writer, Alexander Pope who took an interest in garden design. He put it rather more simply when he wrote in 1731 (a mere 280 years ago), “Consult the genius of the place…” which has come to be interpreted as the principle that design should always be relevant to the location and natural environment. This of course assumes that your particular location has some genius loci attached to it but it is a little hard to see how much genius loci you can lay claim to if your lot in life is a small, flat, urban section with a house, be it large or small, plonked fair and square in the middle. Some of us are blessed with quite a bit more genius loci than others.

using borrowed landscape – that is the view of the neighbours’ properties, assuming you have neigbours with views worth borrowing.

natural landform – silly me. I thought that was part of the genius loci.

and native plants – I can’t quite work out whether this is using the already existing native plants in your own genius locus extending to your neighbours’ genius loci which would be a little limiting because it then tends to apply only to those whose patch is on the boundary of a national park, scenic reserve or at least a patch of native bush. Alternatively it may be that native plants are mandatory and pre-eminent in outstanding gardens. While advocating strongly for the use of native plants in tandem with exotics, I think this statement takes the position of native plants considerably further than is common in this country.

… – often mixed with exotics – yes, we are allowed to embellish with introduced plants (exotics are the vast majority of what we grow in this country. Even our lawn grasses are heavily dominated by exotics, as are all our fruit trees and vegetables). I don’t know what the word often is in there for because you would be hard pressed to find any environment in this country, be it natural or contrived, which does not have introduced plants in it. Even our national parks are invaded by weeds.

to create stunning – stunning… hmm. There is a very emotive word. Quality can be measured and evaluated. Emotional response is a matter of individual opinion.

stunning, indigenous compositions of form, line, texture and colour. I will let the compositions of form, line, texture and colour go, though I can think of clearer ways of defining good gardening as a combination of excellent design and skill with plants. But, indigenous compositions? Puh-lease. Indigenous – occurring naturally or native to the land. Gardening, by definition, is not indigenous. It is an imposition on the landscape, occasionally a natural landscape but more often a landscape already heavily altered by man.

So what I think the original statement says is: outstanding gardens make the most of their natural environment, using a variety of plants and really good design. At least, I hope that is what it says. There is no author named so I can’t check.

The classic garden door frame and passage at Hidcote – best in a garden with plenty of space, perhaps

Just a little further on in the same piece, there is the sweeping statement: “Gardens should be a series of outdoor rooms and should have walls, exits/ entries or passages between the rooms. Rooms should be well defined so the viewer is not distracted by what is going on in the next room although they might be tantalized at some point.”

What happened to open plan living, I ask??? Are we to be forever locked in to that format of the early twentieth century evident in the great English gardens of Sissinghurst and Hidcote? Do not get me wrong. We were very impressed by Hidcote when we visited, but perish the thought that all New Zealand gardens must follow the formula if they want to be seen as very good gardens. There are other styles of garden design. A woodland garden will never be a series of rooms with tight structure. A flowing landscape garden in the manner of Capability Brown relies on open spaces, not rooms. Must a tiny town section redefine itself as an area of poky little rooms surrounded by high walls? All those walls blocking out distraction can be damned oppressive, not to mention expensive if done in permanent landscape materials like brick, plastered concrete block or stone. Or high maintenance if done in clipped tall hedging with the added problem that all those hedge plant roots reaching out into the flower borders. It is also very difficult to accommodate large trees in those rooms, let alone worrying about the place of the genius loci in such a heavily contrived design.

Must the defined spaces of garden rooms, seen here at Great Dixter, become mandatory in good New Zealand gardens?

I could not disagree more. Garden rooms are but one device, one way of achieving a desirable end point. The underpinning principle is surely that a good garden should never be revealed in its entirety at first glance. There should be surprises to be discovered, changes of mood and variations in light and shade. The design should entice you to explore further. Using different types of plants in different ways is not only practical in that you have varying growing conditions but it also punctuates the changes.

If you stand back and look at your garden and decide that it is rambling, then it is likely that you lack that sense of design and flow as well as changes of mood. If you have repeated the same plants (oft claimed as a device to give continuity but actually more often, simply dull), then you exacerbate the sense of rambling lack of form.

Just as there is more than one way to skin a cat (not that I have ever wanted to subject a poor moggy to that exercise), there are more ways to design a garden than depending on tightly defined and enclosed garden rooms. After all, a mark of a good garden is surely a degree of originality?